The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


How to Build a Residential College

6. An Alexandrian Generative Sequence

A college is essentially and simply an association, a group of people joined together for a particular purpose.

—G.H. Martin & J.L.R. Highfield, A History of Merton College, Oxford

The architectural work of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues has made Alexander’s notion of structural patterns popular in many fields from architecture to computer programming. (See the influential book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.) A design pattern in Alexander’s sense is rather like an anatomical feature or organ, and when you look at a large number of successful buildings and neighborhoods you can readily identify many anatomical features—patterns—that they all share and that contribute to their success.

If you wish to construct a complex many-featured thing from scratch, however, you must not only know the components that will be present in the final structure, you must also know the correct embryological sequence—the set of assembly rules—for putting the components and sub-components together in the first place. Alexander calls these assembly rules generative sequences or generative codes: they tell you what decisions you have to make in what order during the construction process. A good generative sequence allows you to avoid backtracking—it allows you to avoid saying, “Oops, we’re stuck because there was something we should have done two steps ago that we forgot.” A generative sequence also allows a project to have flexibility, because it doesn’t require that the details of each pattern element be specified earlier than necessary.

The other sections of this website that explain how to build a residential college describe the anatomy of residential colleges—the “patterns” relating to membership and administrative structure, buildings and grounds, college life and the annual cycle, pastoral care, and academic life. This page, by contrast presents a simple generative sequence for growing a new residential college. In order to understand the generative sequence you do need to have a picture in your mind of the final structure of your college and the components that will make it up, and so you should first read at least the “How To Build a Residential College” summary page. Once you do have that final picture in your mind, review this generative sequence to see how the parts should be initially assembled.

How long will it take? If you have existing buildings available that can provide adequate common space, or can work collegiate enhancements into a pre-existing renovation cycle (see the separate discussion of residential college buildings and grounds), the planning and establishment of a residential college as an academic society doesn’t require very much time. This entire sequence can be carried out in one year, and the college can take in its first resident members the following year.

What about costs? If usable buildings already exist, the principal costs arise from incidental operating expenses—largely food and the maintenance of a college office (2.1.6)—and from salaries for the master and the dean (1.2), each of whom can hold half-time appointments in the residential college and half-time appointments in an academic department. A rule of thumb might be to expect to spend the equivalent of one and a half to two faculty budget lines for each collegiate unit of 400.

¶ Note that this sequence describes the initial development of a college as a membership society; it doesn’t describe how to build college buildings. As such it is applicable not only to traditional residential colleges but also to non-residential house systems as one might find in a secondary school or community college.

The Sequence

  1. Assemble small group of faculty who will be the founding fellows (1.2.3), and select from among them a master (1.2.1) and a dean (1.2.2). The college—the collegium—now exists.

  2. Start weekly lunch hours (3.3.3) for this group to socialize, share ideas, and get to know each other well. These meetings should not be business meetings, although some business may be conducted at them; they should be primarily social gatherings during which you build a sense of group identity among the founding members.

  3. Identify some core graduate students who will be the first resident tutors (1.2.4), and have them join the college lunch group.

  4. Select a distinguished name for your college if you have not done so already, and design some initial college insignia (3.2.3) such as a coat of arms, a distinctive type-style for announcements, a motto, a mascot (3.2.4), and so on. These should be featured in all college activities from this point on.

  5. Identify some core undergraduates who will be the first student council leaders (1.3.5), and have them join the college lunch group. The college now has its first junior members (1.3).

  6. Establish a conversational e-mail group (3.2.2) for these first college members. The e-mail group should be for conversations not only about the college but about everything under the sun: it should be a virtual common room.

  7. Sketch out a rough annual framework for the college, including a few special annual events (3.5), a few monthly events (3.4), and a few weekly events (3.3). The rough framework should include social components, such as holiday celebrations and the weekly college tea (3.3.1), and administrative components, such as application deadlines for new students. Don’t worry about putting in every last detail at this point; just sketch an initial framework, and adjust it as time goes on.

  8. Start a simple one-page college newsletter (3.3.2) that will be distributed not only to the members of the college but also to the campus at large. The early issues should contain educational material about the residential college idea, as well as items about the members. Always mention members’ names and include personal news about them whenever possible. Keep the newsletter simple and light.

  9. Establish a website (3.2.2) for the college with lists of the members, copies of the newsletters, and photos of activities (the lunches that have already taken place, for example, and the college insignia). The website should not only be a place for current news, but should also be an ever-growing archive of the college’s history.

  10. Begin collecting donations for the college library (2.1.5). Announce the creation of the library in the newsletter and solicit one new book from each of the fellows. Once you have your first book, the college library exists.

  11. Establish a permanent endowment account for the college, separate from any operating budget you may have. The principal in the endowment account should never be drawn upon. Ask the founding fellows to each contribute ten dollars, say, so that all of them will have played a role in the endowment’s creation. Once you have deposited your first penny, the permanent college endowment exists.

  12. Design an admission form and advertise for new junior members (1.3) for the coming year.

  13. Appoint a welcoming committee (3.5.1) that will welcome new members into the life of the college, and have them start planning a welcome week for the beginning of the upcoming year.

  14. Admit new members (1.3.2) for the coming year and put them on the newsletter mailing list. Have the welcoming committee contact all the new members individually, and add the new members to the college e-mail group during the summer before they arrive.

  15. With the arrival of your new members, begin your annual framework, revising and extending it as the year proceeds. Incorporate items 12–14 into the framework so the admission cycle will repeat the following year.

  16. Repeat the annual framework for a few hundred years.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021